Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Evoking Emotions

Sketch Of Woman CryingReaders of memoir, like fiction readers, come along for the ride because of the promise of being swept into someone else’s world, which is often different from their own. And they expect everything that goes along with that undiscovered land – setting, history, character struggles, victories and defeats. Even though a memoir is nonfiction, it shouldn’t read like a history book. Adding emotion to our writing will help ensure readers are engaged in the journey we’ve promised them.

There are a lot of crimes a writer can commit – the torture of sentences, the mangling of meaning, the wrecking of words through using the wrong one at the wrong time. However, the greatest of these is the crime of lack – to forget to put in the emotion. ~ Shannon Donnelly

Six basic emotions are found in all good writing: anger, love, sorrow, joy, fear, and surprise. The situations that elicit these feelings may be different, but the feelings themselves are common to all of us, at one time or another and to differing degrees. Expressing these effectively in our memoirs will touch the hearts of those who read our stories.

But evoking the emotion is not the same as telling it. Saying, “I was angry,” is one way to express how we feel. But wouldn’t it be more powerful to show our anger in physical reactions or dialogue?

Emotions are one place where the author should “show, don’t tell,” or “show, then tell.” Show, Don’t Tell, refers to the idea that fiction should create the emotion in the reader by zooming in and giving enough details for the reader to feel as if they are in the story itself. ~ Darcy Pattison

In regard to Show, then Tell, Ms. Pattison explains that “once you have Shown the emotion, you can also – not all the time, but selectively – also name the emotion.” As a rule, the best writers avoid “telling” as often as possible.

How to Evoke Emotions Without Telling

Through Actions
Did a child stomp a foot when he was angry? Stare at her feet when ashamed? Did you slam a cupboard door in anger? Bounce for joy on a bed when you won the lottery? Did your dad sit on the edge of his empty bed, staring out the window for hours, after your mom died? Some people yell when they’re angry, others whisper. We cry out of joy, frustration, and sorrow.

Through Physical Appearance
Facial expressions show our emotions and so can slumped shoulders and jagged fingernails. Our hands shake when we’re nervous, or afraid, or angry. Faces flush out of embarrassment. Eyes widen and lips might become pale from fear. How does jealousy manifest in our outward appearance – a sneer, clenched fists?

Through Setting Description
How we feel affects how we see the world at a particular moment, and we can use that to color our descriptions. A child might describe a new playground as huge and inviting with so many playthings to choose from, but an adult who has just lost a child might hear the screeching swing and see the place as empty and grey.

Through Dialogue
Conversation can show a lot about how a person is feeling. Often it’s not what we say but how we say it that gives us away. Our words come out angry, sarcastic, cutting. Our speech might be halting if we’re unsure or manifest as stuttering or stammering. Sometimes we don’t say what we mean or only speak in half-truths. We blurt things out when we’re excited or choose our words too carefully to hide our anger. The sound of our voice changes, too – growing deeper or high pitched.

Through Writing the Hard Stuff
Writing is hard work. Period. Including emotion in our stories is something we all need to master, but writing a memoir comes with a unique challenge. A fiction writer can pour her truth onto the page without the world guessing how true it is. As a memoirist, you expose your life and your heart to the world, and there’s no hiding those truths. Even a lighthearted story will have its sad or bitter moments. At some point you will face the stark white page that demands a sacrifice of blood. My advice? Shake it off and write as honestly as you can. Straight on. Simple language. It will be powerful.

Through “Contradictions and Convulsions,” “Brambles and Beatitudes”
Truth in writing naturally evokes emotions. Aren’t we often conflicted about our choices or our feelings? We are not perfect robots, or dutiful children. When we read fiction or memoir, we experience someone else’s life. We see how they deal with hard choices, and we rejoice or cry along with them. Their pain is our pain. Maybe we like to be reminded we are not alone.

The following excerpt from the article “Touch the Hearts of Your Readers: Entangle Their Emotions” by Tom Bentley speaks about conflicting emotions common to all of us:

I felt such relief knowing my mom wasn’t to be expelled from her home, such dread that she might outlive the [mortgage] contract, such guilt that I actually hoped she would die in her home before the time is up. How can you hope for your mother to die?

Those kinds of mixed feelings – love, guilt, pride, shame, regret – can pull at a reader as much as they pull at the characters in your work. If you can find a way to use those kinds of feelings, their contradictions and convulsions, richly and honestly, your writing will be the more rich and honest for it…

[We] need to chase down our characters and pull them into all of life’s brambles and beatitudes, and sometimes all at the same time.

If you’ve taken on the task of writing a memoir, leaving out emotion should not be an option. Decide why your stories are worth remembering and retelling. Grab hold of their importance and write from that place of truth. Evoke time and place and relationships with honest emotion. Straightforward or subtle, sharing your feelings (the good and the bad) will enrich your writing, and engage and impact your readers.

Image “Sketch Of Woman Crying” courtesy of luigi diamanti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Paying the Price to Improve Your Writing

WritingPenAn athlete spends time training to strengthen muscles and improve endurance and agility. Musicians spend countless hours in the pursuit of making music flow from their instruments. Even with a natural knack, it takes performance/visual artists years of practice to reach a certain level of expertise in their field. It’s foolish to think that becoming a good writer will take any less of a commitment or sacrifice for the craft.

Whether you’re a beginning writer or one with a list of publishing credits, there are two things that should be done every day to improve your writing:

Read for pleasure, in and out of the genre you write in. Read and re-read the masters and those works that thrill you, those books that grab ahold of you and make you wish you could write like that. This kind of learning creates a subconscious feel for pacing and flow and the power of words, and will eventually pour out naturally in your own writing.

Just write. You know this, I know this, and the greats practice this without fail. Set a daily or weekly word count goal. Play with words. Write in snippets, sonnets, scenes. Finish what you start. Commit, and write every day.

What good writers have over beginning writers is a head start on time spent on the craft plus a testing of commitment and the willingness to sacrifice – they’ve added to their busy calendar the time to do such things as:

Read to learn. Be conscious of what you read and how it makes you feel. Try to determine what an author did to pull you along, to make you turn those pages. Why do you love some characters and hate others? Take the time to break it down.

Join a writing group, spend time with other writers especially those with more experience than you. The old saying “Iron sharpens iron” is true. You will be encouraged in your writing journey and inspired to write.

Join a critique group when you’re ready to share your work. This is something that has to be done at some point. Putting yourself “out there” can be difficult, but it’s necessary to get feedback on your writing (from other than family or friends) in order to improve. And learning to critique the work of others will help you in recognizing the problems in your own writing.

Attend classes, workshops, and conferences. Eventually, most writers have to sacrifice not only time but money to see their writing improve. Target your writing weak spots, network with other writers, and learn the business.

Getting better at anything requires practice. Be an athlete-artist. Commit yourself to your craft and follow the path to better writing.

What commitments and sacrifices have you made to improve your craft?

Plan Now for NaNoWriMo Success: Time Mastery

Whether you’re planning on participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November or are committing to a writing schedule to finish a project, finding the time to meet your daily word count goal is essential to success. After formulating your novel basics (see my post “Novel Focus“), embrace time management skills and use the rest of October to plan the time you need.

  1. Use a November calendar:
    • Mark off those days or partial days in November you know you absolutely won’t be able to write (like a birthday or Thanksgiving).
    • Block off time every day/week for writing – before/after work or school, during commute time, lunch hours, your child’s naps. Get up earlier or go to bed later than usual. Even finding 15 minutes here and there will add up.
  2. Plan catch-up or get-ahead days – make up for the days you know you can’t write and build in time for unexpected, but inevitable, glitches in your perfect plan.
    • Once a week marathons alone or with writing friends.
    • Local NaNo chapters often schedule writing get-togethers.
  3. Plan November’s meals
    • Don’t forget Thanksgiving – delegate to family/friends if possible.
    • Slow cooker meals, sandwiches, breakfast-for-dinner, fast food.
    • Start cooking extra servings in October and freeze for November meals.
  4. Don’t set doctor/dentist appointments for November.
  5. Restrict television viewing and social media – reward yourself with these when you meet your word count, record for later, or build in time on your calendar.
  6. Restrict socializing – again, reward yourself after meeting word counts or build in this time. Or just say “no” and schedule a post-NaNo celebration to make up for your transgression.
  7. Enlist help for daily/weekly chores, like laundry and dishes, and other important responsibilities such as childcare – letting family and friends know how important this commitment is to you should elicit help.
  8. If you can’t write at home, scope out one or more places to write – a local library if you like quiet or a coffee shop if you don’t mind the noise. (I used to write in my car on my lunch hour.)
  9. Prioritize – plan to do those things that are necessary and let the rest slide.
  10. Embrace your OCD side for a month – be relentless in your pursuit of time to write those 1667 words per day.

This might all sound fanatical, but at the end of 30 days you’ll know how important your writing is to you, how committed you are to it, and what you’re willing to do to succeed. And if you keep on track, you’ll have the first draft of a 50K novel for all your hard work and sacrifice.

What is your favorite way to master the time needed to write?

Plan Now for NaNoWriMo Success: Novel Focus

crest-bda7b7a6e1b57bb9fb8ce9772b8faafbValuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved. ~ from the NaNoWriMo website

On November 1, hundreds of thousands of writers from around the world will begin National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a crazy journey to write a 50K novel in thirty days. If you’ve never participated in NaNo, you might think such a thing is an impossible feat, but it is possible and you can do it (I’ve done it twice).

But writing a novel in thirty days is not something you just dive right into, even if you use the pantser method. Planning is the key to ending up with a useable first draft instead of a manuscript made up of the phrase “I hate NaNoWriMo forever” scribbled 10,250 times.

Pantser Method

I’m a pantser, I dive right in when I write. If you’re like me, you have an oh-so brilliant idea for a story and one or more interesting characters to populate it. If you don’t already have a vision of where the story starts, use October to think about your story world and where your storytelling will begin. Visualize the setting. Who are the characters and what are their goals? If you’ll be writing in a sci fi or fantasy world, what are the rules of this place (and/or its magic), the politics, religions? Make notes – remember nothing has to be set in stone. Doing as much pre-thinking as possible before you sit down to write will save time during NaNo and multiple your word count. You might even venture into the darker planner/plotter side and jot down ideas for scenes, perhaps even the ending of the story.

Planner/Plotter Method

Since I’m not a major planner when I write, I defer to those writers with more experience in this area. Janice Hardy suggests the following six steps when planning your novel, whether or not you’re doing NaNoWriMo (see the complete article here with links to more posts about planning your novel).

  1. Is your goal to complete a 50K novel or the first 50K of a longer one? Answering this question first will help with pacing and plotting.
  2. Write a pitch line or several sentences of what the story is about. Clarifying the central conflict of the novel will make it easier to plot and will give clear goals for your protagonist (and antagonist).
  3. List the major points of your story (Hardy calls these set pieces): the opening, inciting event, first major crisis, midpoint reversal, and the second major crisis, point of no return, climax. These can be vague or set guidelines of where your story needs to go.
  4. Write a rough synopsis. This expands on steps 2 and 3 and will give you more of a guide to where your story is heading.
  5. Write a rough outline (Hardy considers this optional). Detailed or not, it will help break the novel into manageable pieces over the 30 days of NaNo.
  6. “Write down any other ideas about the novel…think of it like an idea bank for later.” Snippets of ideas could become scene sparkers or come in handy in other ways you can’t foresee.

If you follow Janice Hardy’s six steps in advance of NaNoWriMo (or any other novel project), you’ll have a good overview of the novel you want to write – and “don’t worry if it’s vague as long as you can see a story unfolding there.”

There’s a protag with a problem, a series of attempts to solve that problem, a conflict keeping them from their goal, stakes if they fail, and a resolution to the problem. If you have that, you have a much better chance of avoiding writer’s block during the month and actually finishing the novel. ~ Janice Hardy

Does writing a novel in 30 days sound so impossible now? If you’ve put off writing that novel you’ve always wanted to write, make this the year you follow through. Sign up for National Novel Writing Month at NaNoWriMo.org and begin planning your novel now. And if you’re still not convinced it can be done, check this list of WriMos who have gone on to publish their NaNo manuscripts (like Sara Gruen and her Water for Elephants).

Are you doing NaNo this year? Why or why not?

Janice Hardy has more in-depth articles about planning for a successful NaNoWriMo in the following posts and in her archives: NaNoWrMo Prep: Planning Your Novel’s Beginning and NaNoWrMo Prep: Planning Your Novel’s Middle.

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Characters

Magnifying GlassI love writing fiction and creating my own world and the characters that inhabit it. Some fiction writers study charts and reference books on psychology to make sure their characters are believable and multi-layered. Some writers base their characters on real people, often combining several people they know into one. But memoirists have an advantage over their counterparts – the characters who inhabit their story are real, with flaws and quirks already built in.

Here are a few truths and techniques that fiction writers use to create believable characters. In the case of creative nonfiction, applying them can add fullness to your “built-in” characters and create an emotional response in the reader. 

1.   Characterization vs. True Character

People become, in our minds, what we see them do. This is the strongest, most irresistible form of characterization. ~ Orson Scott Card

You can characterize a person by using a physical description of the color of their hair and eyes, how tall they are, etc. These traits help a reader visualize a person, but they don’t tell us who that person really is. We only truly understand someone by their actions and the choices they make. Author Joe Bunting says, “We remember characters because they do interesting things. We forget characters whose favorite food is pizza.”

2.   Reveal Characters Gradually

In real life we get to know people gradually. Character details reveal themselves over time, whether we know a person for two hours or twenty years. Similarly, characters are best revealed in memoir through progressive scenes, as time passes. And by the details you give about them, their layers unfold and the reader gets to know them more deeply than they would if all the character detail came in a single paragraph. ~ Suzanne Sherman

Information dumps of any kind, whether of a setting or a character, drag the story down. Give us only the information we need as we need it. Weave in details of physical description, personal history, and personality traits a little at a time to reveal the character as the story unfolds.

3.   Include Motivation

If you’re writing nonfiction, what your characters do (or have done) is a matter of fact, perhaps even of public record. What may not be as evident is why they did it. Introducing your readers to the motivation behind a character’s actions will give a nonfiction piece more depth and, ultimately for the reader, more satisfaction. ~ Scott Francis

The reasons why we do things can begin in childhood or at any point in our lives, and some things build on others – we might be shy adults because we were bullied when we were young, and shyness can affect our choices throughout our lives. A soldier might want to make his family proud and so faces combat with courage. A single mom goes hungry to make sure her children eat. Sharing the story behind the story helps us to understand the why of things without necessarily making us agree with a person’s choices.

4.   Show Change (or not)

We love to see characters transformed. Mainly because we are being transformed. We know the painful but liberating feeling of ceasing to be one way and beginning to be another, especially if the new way results in more success in relationships or other areas of life we value. ~ Jeff Gerke

There are basically three types of characters (and people) – those that change for the better, those that change for the worse, and those that don’t change at all. In our lives we will probably know people who fall into all of these categories. Change can happen to us gradually or come on like a lightning strike, or we can be stubborn and fight it to the end. Showing us how a person deals with change reveals that person’s character.

5.   Reveal the Familiar

Think about a novel or a favorite movie – when we relate to a character, don’t we get more involved in her story, don’t we cheer her on? This aspect of familiarity could involve habits and mannerisms like fingernail biting or stuttering. It can also be related to the human condition, our shared fears and struggles, and our motivations. When we relate, we get emotionally involved.

6.   Other Details that Add Layers

The goal is to make your readers feel something for your character. The more they care about them, the more emotion they’ll invest in your story. ~ Tom Pawlik

Here are seven more points to consider when revealing character, taken from Tom Pawlik’s article “The 9 Ingredients for Character Development.” The answers to many of the questions in this list might not make it outright into your story, but they can translate to the page through a greater understanding of your characters.

  • Communication style: How does your character talk? Does she favor certain words or phrases that make her distinct and interesting? What about the sound of her voice? Personality comes through our speech.
  • History (related to motivations): Where does your character come from? What events shaped his personality? Was it a loving family or an abusive, dysfunctional one? What led him to the career choices he made?
  • Relationships: What kind of friends and family does he have? How does he relate to them? Is he very social or reclusive or somewhere in between? People can be defined by the company they keep, so this can be a good way to define character.
  • Ambition: What is her passion in life? What are her goals? What is her unrecognized, internal need that she’s trying to meet?
  • Character defect: Everyone has an irritating personality trait. Is he too self-centered? Too competitive? Too lazy? Too compliant? Too demanding of others? He’ll feel more real if he has some flaw.
  • Thoughts: What kind of internal dialogue does your character have (for a memoir, this is the narrator’s voice)? How does she think through her problems and dilemmas? Is her internal voice the same as her external?
  • Restrictions: More than a personality flaw, what physical or mental weakness does a character deal with or try to overcome? After all, even Superman had Kryptonite. This helps humanize your character, making her more sympathetic and relatable.

In writing creative nonfiction, recognizing these fiction techniques and applying them to your “built-in” characters can help bring your story, and the real-life people who inhabit it, to life.

A Writer’s Approach: Plotter, Pantser, Hybrid

CampNanoPlannerBadgeCampNanoPantserBadgeIt’s been said and much debated that there are two kinds of writers – those who outline and plan before starting a writing project (plotters) and those who dive in and write “by the seat of their pants” (pantsers). Many writers, myself included, are hybrids who fall somewhere between the two, combining the traits or techniques of both to one degree or another.

…imagination is limitless. Do not, therefore, reduce your story to outlines and sketches, notes and 3×5 cards. You will make your story finite this way and it will suffer because it cannot grow beyond your outline. ~ author David L. Robbins

Plotters have a lot of tools and techniques at their fingertips to help plan out their stories:  outlines, scene cards, storyboards, character profiles and personality charts. Many plotters have folders filled with things like diagrams and photos, notes on history, culture, and languages. There are two possible problems in this type of approach. First, a writer could get so bogged down with accumulating information, building plot structure, and the need to plan, that he doesn’t write. And second, creativity could be sacrificed for structure, leaving the story as lifeless as a textbook. The positive side to being a plotter-type is a writer will always know what the next step is. He will not suffer from writer’s block. And by the time the first draft is complete, he won’t have to worry about things like plot holes and continuity issues.

A pantser needs to plot on the fly so she can stay enthralled with her story. Her creative psyche requires a challenge in order to operate optimally. ~ author Kathleen Baldwin

Pantsers tend to throw themselves into a story and go for it, letting the characters reveal themselves and the plot unfold as they go. There are two main problems that can arise from using this approach. One, the story – though truly character-driven – often suffers from either too little or too much plot. The main plotline can become convoluted or there might be so many sub-plots it’s too hard to keep track of them all. And halfway into the project, the characters can easily drive the story into a corner. This leads to the second problem. The very nature of pantsing means the writer doesn’t know where the story is going and that can translate into writer’s block and unfinished projects. Pantsing is a fun and creative way to write, but at the end of the first draft, much research still needs to be done, along with structuring, etc.

Chase your story, believe in your characters and follow them. Do not predetermine every step they take but record what they do, and do the recording breathlessly but with control, as if you just came inside to report…a marvel you have just witnessed. ~ author David L. Robbins

So it seems that too much of a good thing is not so good a thing. Enter the hybrid writer. Not to say a plotter isn’t creative or a pantser can’t write a coherent story, but combining the techniques of both could make for a better story overall. But whether a writer tends to be a plotter-pantser or a pantser-plotter, story plot and structure still need to be addressed at some point in the process.

Author Janice Hardy takes a hybrid approach to crafting stories. She creates the framework first but keeps the story fresh in her mind by giving her characters free rein within the structure (see her excellent article “Going Both Ways: Outlines for Plot, Pantser for Character”).

In my own writing, I jump into a story without an outline but only characters and a vision of the story landscape as a guide. After a few chapters of writing this way, I usually know where the story will end up and I begin a loose outline. I continue to write and craft my outline, adding notes to aid in continuity and reminders for research. This process keeps me moving forward but leaves room to let the characters drive the story. I still have work to do after the first draft is finished but catering to the way my pantser-plotter brain works is worth the extra effort at the end.

In the article “Writers – Plotters or Pantsers” author Trish Jackson discusses the differences between the brains of a plotter and a pantser. She believes plotters predominately use the left side of their brain which controls logic and order. They’re more likely to create a detailed plan and write plot-driven stories. Pantsers tend to be more right-brained – creative but disorganized – and tend to write character-driven stories.

woman_spinJackson’s article also includes this moving graphic. To see if you’re right- or left-brained, watch the spinning woman. If she spins clockwise, you’re using your right brain. If she spins counter-clockwise, you’re using your left. And if you can change the direction of her spin, you’re a little of both – and probably have hybrid tendencies.

If you find yourself struggling with a writing project, keeping a tight grip on your writing approach could be the problem. A consistent struggle with writer’s block or finishing a project might be helped by stepping over into plotter territory. And if your story seems a bit on the lifeless side or you’re not enjoying the process, letting your pantser-self loose for a while could be the answer.

 In the great debate, are you a plotter, a pantser, or a hybrid?

Bring Your Descriptions to Life

Janice Hardy has kindly granted me permission to re-post her article originally titled “5 Ways to Bring Your Descriptions to Life,” which is full of examples to help writers craft descriptions that count. Janice is one of my favorite bloggers and YA authors. Her blogging  goal is “to offer ways to build a solid foundation for your writing. To provide tips and advice you can take right from the posts and apply directly to your work in progress.” Though this article was written with a fictional point of view in mind, it is equally relevant to creative nonfiction. (This article was first posted on Writers on the Storm on April 13, 2012.)


Leaves Floating on WaterWhen you think about it, everything in a book is description, because the author is describing an entire story to you. But when it gets down to the actual details of what’s in that story, it’s not uncommon for things to bog down into the minutia of what something looks like. Looks aren’t nearly as important as the reasons behind why that item is there to be seen in the first place.

The bulk of your descriptions are likely to be in the setting. Describing the world, the locations your protagonist visits and moves through, the things they touch and use. But if you just throw them in there, they become as flat and lifeless as backdrops on a stage. Description does nothing to move a story forward on its own. It’s how it interacts with the characters that makes or breaks it. You want details that breathe life into both your characters and your setting.

Making Details Come Alive

Let’s take a few random details in a scene. Rain, a clock, a restaurant, a window, pancakes, and an envelope. You might have a passage like:

The rain poured down the window of the restaurant. Bob sat at the table, a stack of pancakes beside him. He stared at an envelope in his hands, while above him on the wall, a clocked ticked.

It’s not bad, but it has no life to it. The details do nothing to tell us more than what this scene looks like. Is Bob happy? Sad? Do you care what might be in that envelope? Probably not.

Now, let’s turn those same backdrop details into living details by thinking about:

1. Who’s doing the looking?

A Navy SEAL will look at things a lot differently than a scared girl. Take the knowledge and attitude of your point of view character into account when you decide what they see. Think about how they would describe something, not how you would.

Navy SEAL: The rain beat against the restaurant window like rounds from an Uzi. Bob sat at the table, back against the wall, a stack of uneaten pancakes beside him. He gripped the envelope tighter with every tick of the clock above him. New orders. Great.

Girl: Rain covered the window, masking the tiny restaurant with its blurriness. Bobbi slouched at the table, her head barely higher than the stack of pancakes beside her. The envelope lay in her lap. She didn’t want to touch it, let alone open it. She glanced at the clock and sighed. Running out of time.

Same details, but notice how different these are from the first backdrop one. There’s a sense of who the point of view character is and what problem they might be facing.

2. Why are they looking at it?

Sometimes you scan a room, sometimes you’re watching for something in particular, and sometimes you’re looking to escape with your life. Your reasons for looking impact what you see and how you feel about it. If your protagonist has no feelings at all about something, why is it in the scene? While not every detail has to matter at this level, using details to bring out an emotion or thought from your protagonist helps make the setting more memorable. It won’t just be details.

Example: It was still raining. Why did it always rain when these things happened? Bob sat at the table, a stack of “have to order or get out” pancakes beside him. The envelope lay next to it with just as much obligation on a single neatly folded letter inside. He glanced out the window and sighed. Stuck in a stinking roadside restaurant today of all days. Figured.

Can you tell Bob has to do something he doesn’t want to do? Does his pessimism and frustration come through? And all because of why he saw what was there and how he felt about it.

3. What is important to them?

People notice what’s important to them. What’s important to your protagonist? Both in general and in that scene. A girl obsessed with fashion might indeed notice what everyone is wearing, while a tired mom might not. Spending time on details that mean nothing to your protagonist (or seem weird for your protagonist to care about) risks pulling the reader out of the story.

Example: Rain pattered against the restaurant window like tiny running feet. Bob sat at the table, smiling a dumb happy grin, the stack of pancakes beside him. He looked at an envelope again. How could one letter make everything so much better? The clock ticked and he hummed along with it. “It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine.”

Any guesses as to what might be in that letter? The envelope and what’s in it are what matter to Bob, and the rest of the details are just there. But here, they don’t feel just there. Bob barely looking at them shows his preoccupation with the letter, and adds to hints as to what it said and his state of mind.

4. What is important to the scene or story?

Sometimes you need to put in a detail for plot reasons. Just tossing it in there might not be the best use of it though. Too obvious a description or too much focus is like shining a light on it for the reader. It practically screams “hey, pay attention here.” Maybe you want this, maybe you don’t, or maybe you want the clue to hide in plain sight for a surprise later. If something needs to be there and be seen, take a minute to think about how your protagonist might see it and how it can work with the scene, not just be in the scene.

Example: Bob slid into his usual booth by the window, watching the rain.

“What’s it gonna be today?” Sally asked.

“I think I’ll have the pancakes.”

“You got it, doll.” She tucked her pen behind her ear and turned. A pale blue envelope fluttered out of her order pad and floated to the floor.

“Hey, you dropped something.” Bob bent over and picked it up. Postmarked Columbia.

“What? Oh, that’s not mine.” Sally snatched the letter before he could read who it was addressed to.

“But I’ll toss it into the lost and found for you.”

“Uh, okay.” He glanced at the clock. “Put a rush on those pancakes, would you? I’ve got court at one.”

A longer passage, but it’s obvious the envelope is going to be important. So is that postmark. Could it have something to do with Bob’s court date? And does Sally know what it all means? The details help move the story and create interest in what’s going on.

5. What tone/theme/mood are you trying to achieve?

If you’re going for dark and creepy, describing bright and sunny is going to fight with your story, not help move it along. Small details can add to the emotion of a scene. They give you opportunities for similes and metaphors that flow seamlessly, because the detail evokes a feeling in your protagonist. They can help illustrate your theme in subtle (or not so subtle) ways. They can foreshadow and even raise the tension by evoking something foreboding or mysterious. 

Example: Bob learned against the wall, watching the rain wash away what was left of his life. A photographer walked over his body in the restaurant’s doorway, shutter snapping the broken clock, the pancakes he’d never finish, the shattered window. The police paid more attention to the envelope clutched in his cold hand. Idiots.

I don’t think anyone’s going to mistake this for a comedy or a romance novel. The details are still the same, but they’ve adapted to suit the tone and gritty, sad feel of a guy seeing his own dead body. 

Details mean different things to different people. How you show those details to the reader helps the reader better understand not only what’s in the scene, but who’s in it as well. The right detail can instantly pique a reader’s interest and make them want to know more.

Don’t just create backdrops. Make your descriptions count.

Janice Hardy RGB 72Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books in the trilogy are The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall, from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel. You can visit her online at www.janicehardy.com, chat with her about writing on her blog, The Other Side of the Storyor find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.

Three Needs of Creativity

Lightbulb Key on Computer KeyboardI was recently asked to write an article discussing my creative process in regard to writing. My first thought was, “I have an idea, I visualize it, and then I write.” This eleven-word response doesn’t equal an article no matter how far I stretch each word out on a page. So I began to think more deeply about creativity, where it came from and how it manifests itself in my life.

Creativity needs exercise.

Like most children, my imagination came alive through play. My first memory of such things is of using my hands to interact as characters instead of using dolls. Later I made homes for crazy-haired trolls. GI Joe and Barbie became super heroes. The mesa surrounding my elementary school was the surface of Mars and the swings were my rocket ships. When Star Trek (the tv show) came along, my brother and I took turns playing Kirk and Spock, because they were, you know, the coolest characters in the show.

Outside of play, books were my entertainment early on and, with time, my escape. These stories came alive in my mind, everything playing out as the words formed their images. Then as a young adult in the military – to counter the all-out, flatline boredom of endless hours of waiting – I mastered the art of visualization in creating worlds in my mind filled with characters and their adventures. If you knew me at that time, you probably thought I was merely staring mindlessly into space like everyone else, bored senseless. But I was, instead, living in my waking dreams.

My mind still goes off on its own sometimes, and I’ll blink and realize I’ve been out there in another “dream world.” Piles of books wait at my bedside every night, bookmarks evidence my involvement in each of these worlds. I also have a Kindle that’s filling up nicely. And I love to play with my eight-year-old granddaughter, though I have to stop myself from directing her imagination. Where I want a band of Lego pirates to move through a story from beginning to middle to end, she still delights in throwing her people into one adventure after another without regard to logic or order.

Creativity needs stimulation.

If given the chance, a child will play for hours with dolls or Legos or sticks and dirt. A new toy (or rock) or storybook can ignite a whole new creative world.

I find the simplest things spark my creativity, and usually when I’m not looking for inspiration. While going through my junk mail several years ago, I read about a ministry in the Philippines that addresses the needs of orphans who live in a cemetery. I began to wonder about their lives, and that led to my newest fantasy world and the trilogy I’m working on now called The Last Bonekeeper.

From a writer’s point of view, life experience adds dimension to our creative endeavors. After a certain number of years we all know what rage feels like, and heartbreak. We’ve been hungry and alone. We’ve known the joy of love. Watched people die. For everything in between, observation and study can fill in the gaps. Listening to coffee shop conversations. Walking in the rain. Volunteering at hospitals. Visiting a firing range. Eating new kinds of food. Traveling. Life can stimulate our creativity in practical and immediate ways or at a more subconscious and subtle level. And sometimes, for me, all the brain needs is a bit of rest. I often wake up in the morning with the best story ideas.

Creativity needs an outlet.

If you give young children crayons, they will create something, whether or not you recognize their creation. If you ask them what their squiggles are, they might tell you one is a dog, another is their binky, and a third is Mommy. Maybe in their minds, that’s exactly what they see or maybe it’s what they meant to draw. 

An artist just starting out might have an idea in her mind of what she wants to create, but when she goes to sculpt it or draw it or paint it, it doesn’t come out the way she imagines. She might not be ready for years to create that thing she sees in her mind, but she keeps practicing and working at it until one day, there it is emerging from her fingertips.

I think writing often works the same way. When we first start out, what we put on the page isn’t always what we have in mind. There’s something missing. It’s just not right, but the more we practice the better we get. There are times when I have to stop writing because I don’t know how to create a particular scene or portray a character arc. I have to put the manuscript away and come back to it later when time has changed me or practice has improved my technique. Or I’ve studied how other authors approach the same problem.

What makes one person more creative than another?

Maybe we’re all creative in our own way. Some people write, some invent practical gadgets or new ways of doing things. Others take a pile of ingredients and form them into a wonderful meal – actually make it look appetizing and taste great, and enjoy the process while they’re at it. I’m not one of those people. I like to color coordinate my food: chicken + boiled potatoes + corn = yellow!

Creativity can be nourished (and starved). And I think the ability to express creativity can be taught and learned. When I sit down to create worlds, visualization is my foundation – I see characters move through their world, hear their conversations, feel their emotions, and then transfer it onto the page.

So what does your creative process look like? How does it differ from mine?

Free Resources for Writers: The Basics

?????????????I love free stuff. I’ll jump on a free book, no questions asked, even if it’s not a genre I normally read—you never know where a gem might be hiding just waiting to be unearthed. The same is true for writing resources.

There are tons of free resources to be found on the Internet, but here’s a short list of foundational ones that continue to help me in my writing journey.

The “Why” of Writing:

The Writer’s Manifesto by Jeff Goins is a “small eBook about getting back to the heart of writing…a call for writers to fall back in love with writing for the love of it.” If you’re ready to be inspired to write for the best of reasons, get a free copy of this short, read-in-one-sitting e-book by joining his newsletter list (or pay $.99 on Amazon or Barnes & Noble).


Make Reference.com your first stop on your road to research. Enter your topic in the search bar and watch how much information pops up.

You’ve probably already found Thesaurus.com and Dictionary.com but you may not have discovered WordHippo.com. This site provides definitions and synonyms/antonyms, as well as rhyming words, translations to other languages, word tenses, and pronunciation.

Etymonline.com is an online etymology dictionary. It’s a useful resource to add flavor and accuracy to your writing, to make sure words or phrases were indeed used in a certain place or during a specific time period. Take the noun “stuff.” I thought it was a fairly modern word, but etymonline.com tells me it was used in the 1570s to refer to “matter of an unspecified kind,” whereas usage in the context of “having a grasp on a subject” (to know stuff) isn’t recorded until 1927.

If you’re searching for names for your characters, you could check out a list for boys or girls or you could step out and use one of the many online generators. My favorite is Online Name Generator. Both the Random Name Generator and the Fake Name Generator produce realistic character names. Besides “normal” names, the site also generates ones for elves, pets, bands, clans, businesses, teams, fantasy characters, superheroes, vampires, pirates, as well as evil names and code names.

Redwood’s Medical Edge is a blog by author and RN Jordyn Redwood designed to help both historical and contemporary authors learn methods to write medically accurate fiction. She fields medical questions, analyzes medical scenes, and posts on topics that can increase the tension and conflict in any story. Check out her blog archives for topics.

At Videojug learn lots of things your modern characters might need to know to survive in their world or should know in their particular line of work. Find out about digital photography or dance moves under Creative & Culture, or how to repair fireplaces or stack wood under DIY & Home. For survivalists, go to Sports & Outdoors/Camping/Wilderness Survival to learn How to Make Fishing Nets, How to Hack a Flashlight for Emergency Power, and the all-important How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse.

Go to Written Sound for “how to write the sound of things: onomatopoeia and words of imitative origin” (like weapons fire or a person choking).

Here’s another one of my favorites – a list of British words not widely used in the United States (okay, I haven’t used this in my own writing, but it’s good to have in case I need it someday, and to help when watching those great British tv shows). Along the same lines is a list of words having different meanings in American and British English.


From The Nighttime Novelist by Joseph Bates. Use this link to download 23 different worksheets to help with things like avoiding clichés and keeping track of description and supporting characters.

From Book in a Month by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. Go here to download more free and helpful worksheets, such as At-A-Glance Outline, Character Sketch, and Character Revealing Scenes.

I limited myself in this post to what I think are the basic resource needs of a writer. I didn’t include any of the awesome websites for writing advice, which I do consider a resource, but I’ll deal with those at a later date.

There are so many free resources on the web to help us with the basics of research and setting up our stories, please comment to share some of your favorites.

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Dialogue

LongRoad2bDialogue in any kind of story is useful for revealing motives, character, conflict, setting, and important information; as well as for creating tension and suspense, and movement through scenes. While staying true to your memory when writing memoir, you can still produce realistic dialogue by following certain conventions.

In a memoir, can you really recreate pages of dialogue? No. Key phrases may live in your memory, but few [people] can remember word-for-word exchanges. For this type of writing, you’ll have to rely on reconstructed dialogue, but it needs to come up against the standards of good dialogue.  ~ Darcy Pattison

Like all of us, your characters’ speech is influenced by their education, family, friends, where they’ve lived, their way of thinking, and the particular circumstances they find themselves in. A teacher will speak one way in front of a group of children, another way with her colleagues, and still another when she’s at home. 

The following are basic ways I’ve found to effectively capture interaction between characters through dialogue.

Use Contractions: In modern conversation, people say “don’t” instead of “do not,” unless they’re trying to make a point or for emphasis. “Timmy, don’t touch the skunk.” And then, “Timmy, do not touch that skunk again. Do you understand me?”

Don’t Overuse Names: We might say “Bill, is that a venomous spider on your back?” to get his attention, but when our husband comes home from work, the conversation doesn’t sound like:  “How was your day, Bill?” “My day was so-so, Barb, how was yours?” “Well, Bill, I stubbed my toe.”

Avoid Niceties: When people meet or talk on the phone, they might begin with the weather or inquire about each others health, but unless a person is fixated on these things (as part of their personality) or they’re important to the story, skip it. So when Bill comes home from work, instead of asking about his day, Barb might greet him immediately with, “I had the worst day ever. I stubbed my toe.”

Dialect: Writing dialect, and doing it right, is a difficult thing to do. What might sound right to you in the writing – because you know what you’re trying to say and how it sounds in your mind – might not come across to the reader the same way. Pick a few words, like “y’all” and “yonder,” and pepper them in the dialogue for best effect.

Vernacular: As with dialect, common language can be overdone. Include a few words to get the flavor, such as “gonna,” “gotta,” “wanna.”

Here’s an example of dialect and vernacular from Bobbie Christmas*:

The following is the kind of dialect editors do not like: “He ben goin’ ta dat sto’ ever’ day since thin.” It is much better to write in the vernacular – the lingo – of a character’s speech, spelling words correctly, but using the character’s word, as in this rewrite: “He been going to that store ever day since then.” 

Beware Exclamation Points: Overusing exclamation points becomes either annoying to the reader or meaningless like white noise. Instead of using an exclamation point every time characters get excited or angry in conversation, show this in their mannerisms or other physical reactions. Use them only when you have to and never more than one per instance. According to author Terry Pratchett, “Five exclamation marks [are] the sure sign of an insane mind.”

Information Dumps: To keep a reader’s attention, large amounts of information should not be imparted all at once in writing, and certainly not through dialogue. When we talk to each other, we don’t usually go on and on about a subject. And when people do, we (as listeners) often tune them out. We don’t want to do that to our reader. Give us important information through description, exposition, in bits and pieces, and break it up naturally in dialogue. Even when making a speech, the speaker will pause to take a drink of water or ask for questions from the audience. A storyteller will pause for affect, catch the eye of listeners, talk with his hands.

Filler Words: People pause when they talk, using words like “ah,” “uh,” and “um.” Sometimes we do this out of habit and sometimes just because we’ve lost our train of thought. Even though this is a natural way of speaking, it fills up space in dialogue and is annoying to read. For a character who speaks with pauses as part of who he is, use these sparingly as you would with dialect and vernacular.

Dialogue Tags/Beats – Tags and beats let us know who is speaking.

Use “said” whenever possible – it doesn’t interfere with the writing because the reader tends to pick up the important information (who’s talking) and skip the “said.” Use another word, such as “whispered” or “shouted,” when it’s not already clear how the character is speaking through word choice or the use of beats (see below).

Insert a dialogue tag where it feels most natural in the conversation, and sooner than later. Waiting until the end of a paragraph can be confusing or distracting to the reader if they don’t know who is speaking. In the first sentence of the next example, the reader doesn’t know who’s talking until the end, and it could make a difference in how the reader imagines the scene: “Well, that certainly is a colorful, venomous spider. Would you like to hold it?” Barb said. Or, “Well,” Barb said, “that certainly is a colorful, venomous spider. Would you like to hold it?”

A beat is a description of a physical action that falls between lines of dialogue. It adds variety and movement to the writing, aids the reader in “seeing” the scene, adds to characterization, and helps with the writer’s work of showing-not-telling. Where you have a beat, you don’t need a tag. Do this: “Look, another colorful, venomous spider.” Barb brushed the creature off Bill’s back. Not this: “Look, another colorful, venomous spider,” Barb said, brushing the creature off Bill’s back.

Paragraph Structure: Give each character in the conversation his own paragraph, even when using dialogue tags or beats or if it’s a one-word or one-sentence paragraph.

For memoir, we rely on our memory to write dialogue, but even having a recorded conversation doesn’t mean it converts smoothly into dialogue. For This New Mountain, I was able to transcribe a recorded interview with AJ Jackson’s mentor that became an entire chapter. This was a real-life, in the moment exchange, but straight transcription wasn’t enough to make it work. I added dialogue tags and beats. I cut filler words and vernacular. And to keep the movement going and spark interest, it was necessary to summarize some of what was said and include additional, relevant information.

Learning how to write good dialogue is a process. And like most kinds of learning, it takes reading and study and practical application. Go out into the world and listen to conversation. When composing dialogue, let it play out in your mind between your characters, and then share the end result with others to get their feedback.

(*Bobbie Christmas/Zebra Communications, the Writers Network News April 2012. For a free newsletter and Tools for Writers go to www.zebraeditor.com/tools_for_writers.shtml.)

What are your suggestions for writing realistic dialogue?